What Future for Small-Scale Agriculture

We’re pleased to release our report Farmers and food systems, what future for small-scale agriculture? (PDF: 10MB; opens in a new window)
Please note: the table in Box 1, page 13 was updated in August 2021 to reflect new information.

As we trundle through our supermarkets, or wander through an open market, looking for good deals we all to easily take for granted the food we purchase and the farmers who produce it. Most of what the world eats is produced by family farms and 90% of all farms are family run. These family farms vary from large commercial operations to tiny plots of land where producing enough to even feed the family is impossible.

With rapid urbanisation the pressure is on from consumers and governments for low food prices. The end result are low returns for most farmers, and most farm families are doing it tough.

It is critical to get our heads around the scale of the issue. Of the world’s approximately 560 million farms of <20 ha, 410 million or 72% are less than 1 ha, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. To make a living from 1 ha of land is not easy if not impossible.  Yet, taking a family size of five, the livelihoods of over two billion people are linked to farms of <1ha. Taking all small-scale farms below 20ha and rural labourers this number gets closer to three billion or 40% of the world’s population.

While huge strides have been made in tackling poverty and hunger on a wider scale, the one to two billion people being left behind at the very bottom of the economic pyramid, often with very poor nutritional status, are predominantly rural people linked to agriculture.

The report puts this challenge in a wider context of changing food systems. That food systems, over the last half century, have met the huge increased demand for food has been an astonishing achievement. However, we now face the downsides as recognition grows about how unhealthy, environmentally unsustainable and inequitable many of the ways we produce, distribute and consume food have become.

A profound transformation is needed in how food systems function and in small-scale agriculture. Drawing on latest data, the report assesses the state of small-scale agriculture and the implications of structural changes in food systems for their future. It provides a set of conceptual framings that can help to unpack the complex issues around small-scale agriculture, highlight where more data and understanding is needed, and provides a reference point for debate.

Moving forward will require a much better country-level analysis of the structure of small-scale agriculture and rural poverty, coupled with long-term visions and strategies for transformation set within a wider food systems framework. Enhanced national level multi-stakeholder and cross-sector foresight and scenario processes, underpinned by better data, are needed to develop such visions and strategies. Ultimately, greater political commitment is required to bring about change. This calls for stronger and more influential coalitions for change, and greater public understanding and support.

Jim Woodhill

Saher Hasnain

Alison Griffith